Charles Yu: Adjacent Realities

CHARLES CHOWKAI YU was born January 3, 1976 in Los Angeles CA. He attended UC Berkeley, where he stud­ied molecular and cell biology, graduating in 1997, and then went to Columbia Law School, earning his law degree in 2001. He worked as a lawyer until 2014, when he took a job writing for SF drama Westworld on HBO. He went on to write for other shows (including Lodge 49 and Legion), and continues to develop film and TV projects, including adap­tations of his own fiction and original work.

Yu began publishing short fiction in literary magazines in the early 2000s, gradually expanding to SF anthologies. His first collection, Third Class Superhero (2006), includes genre work, as does follow-up Sorry Please Thank You (2012). He guest edited The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 (2017), invited by the series editor, John Joseph Adams.

His debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), an ambitious literary work about time-travel and family, was widely acclaimed, and was a runner-up for both the Campbell Memorial Award and the Locus Award for First Novel. Yu’s eagerly anticipated follow-up, Interior Chinatown (2020), is a novel told in the form of a screenplay, and won the National Book Award for Fiction. His most recent work is SF story The Only Living Girl on Earth (2021).

Yu lives near Irvine CA with wife Michelle Jue and their children.

Excerpts from the interview:

“Growing up in LA, my dad had a lot of books on his shelves. I never saw him reading them – I think they were mostly from grad school. But I would just pick them up and look at them, so I guess I did grow up in a reading family. My mom read novels at night sometimes when I was really young, and I remember dragging a book bag around from the time I was three or four – I had this little blue bag that said Arizona on it from some free giveaway. It was a canvas bag, and I would just drag it around the house and fill it with books – so I was reading pretty early.

“I read a little bit of Asimov and Bradbury, and I remember reading a bit of Piers Anthony for a while on the fantasy side – I don’t know what the divide is. I just thought they were cool books. There were the books you had in school, and then there were the fun books the library had. I never thought about things in terms of genre. When I was first starting to write stuff, I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I want to be this kind of writer, or that kind.’ I just started writing whatever came out. It turned out that what came out did usually have some speculative element.

“We lived in West LA, in Mar Vista, and there was a comic store near my school in Culver City, so whenever I could persuade my mom to take me there, she would let me wander for an hour and then get a couple things. There was a while where I had a whole deal with three-ring bind­ers and glassine bags and I’d carefully put my comics in the bags and keep them all neat and tidy, but somehow my comics always ended up in terrible shape. I was really bad at taking care of them, but I made sure to go through the theater of pretending I was taking good care of them. So I read comics for a while, and then just stopped, probably when we moved away and there wasn’t a comic store nearby. Then all of a sudden, I’m an adult and I’m starting to write short stories, and superheroes were back – I guess they never really went away, but they be­came what they are now, before they became global branded IP or whatever. I was starting to write in the early 2000s, around the time Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies were coming out, and that was just the beginning. Maybe it was something in the water, but I think growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the idea of these multi-verses, these shared fictional narrative spaces, that concept made a lasting impression on me.

“I didn’t know if anyone else would be inter­ested in the things I wrote. I felt like they were just so weird and formal in terms of the ex­periment and playing with ideas – like, I wrote a story in the form of a series of physics problems. I figured if anyone was going to be interested, it would be people at a university or something, and I’d worked on a couple of literary journals while I was in college, so I had a glimpse of that corner of the world. I remember going online or combing through Poets & Writers or other publications, and looking for places to submit my work. And I started sending stories out. I never really thought about sending stories to genre magazines or anthologies until editors started to reach out, people like John Joseph

Adams and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, to ask for stories. That’s when I started to contribute to their anthologies – when they would invite me. I still do have a little bit of insecurity about whether or not I’m part of that world. I’m always scared people will either feel like I’m a tourist, or like I’m coopting science fiction, or something.

“I am self-deprecating, but it’s more like self-flagellating. I can’t not do it – it’s just who I am. I still enjoy reading interviews where people really talk about that part of the experience, because I hope that if there are people out there writing or with a manuscript that they want to send somewhere, or they’ve already been published, they know they’re not the only ones who feel this way. I always like hearing the personal side of it, so I hope it’s interesting.

“I published Third Class Superhero, my first collection of short stories in 2006. I was still working full-time as a lawyer at that time. On the one hand, I was really excited. I had published a book, a whole book! It had been a dream of mine. My editor who bought the first book was at Harcourt, and then she ended up becoming a literary agent instead – I don’t know if it was the economy or what, but there was restructuring at that publishing house. So when eventually I had an idea to write another book, I didn’t know if it would have a home. I just had to write it and see what would happen. I thought the next one should probably should be a novel – I don’t know why, but I think that’s just the expectation: you publish your collec­tion of stories, and then you do a novel. I had this idea for a story, but I didn’t really know entirely what it was yet. It was a time-travel story that’s really a father-son story, and I was lucky. My agent at the time, a guy named Gary Heidt who I’m really grateful to, said, ‘I think I know an editor who might be the right person for this,’ and it was Tim O’Connell.

“It’s one of those things where you look back and go, ‘If that hadn’t happened….’ A bunch of connected things had to happen for it to work out. Tim is a great editor, but there are a couple other things about him that I think made him the only person who could have actually helped me finish the book. One is that he’s willing to take things on that just don’t fit into any box, and two, he’s willing to take things very early in the process—I think he actually enjoys get­ting in there and helping to shape the thing. At times, I’ve felt Tim can see the thing before I can see it, or he just has this sense that there’s something there worth digging for. This is all preamble to say I basically had a vague idea and some pages of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, like, ‘Here’s this time travel story that’s actually this meta thing where it’s a book about itself, and it’s also a time machine it­self,’ and he worked with me for several months to help guide me through the structuring and writing before Pantheon acquired it. On the one hand I felt like, ‘What if we do this for several months or a year and nothing happens?’, but on the other hand I thought, ‘This is the best possible way to do this, to work on something with no expectations.’ While I was writing the

book, my wife and I had had our first baby in 2007 and then our second in 2009. Late at night after the kids were asleep, I would go to my computer and try to figure out what I was doing. I remember thinking, ‘What is this? Will anybody know what this is?’ After we worked on it for a while together, Tim brought it to the higher-ups. One of them was Marty Asher, who took the book under his wing at Vintage. Vintage didn’t end up publishing it until the paperback edition, but Tim needed in-house support from someone with Marty’s stature to give the manuscript a chance. Amazingly, they ended up accepting the book for publication, and the hardcover came out from Pantheon.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe came out in 2010, and it did surpris­ingly well. I’m not sure what my publisher’s ex­pectations were, but mine were quite modest. I’d already had a book come out to very little fanfare, and I knew not to get my hopes up. So I was surprised by the reception, both critically and because it ended up selling fairly well for a metafictional literary science fiction thing. One very cool thing: The novel was a finalist for a Locus Award in the first novel category. I was looking at Locus one day, and I was like, ‘Whoa. I’m a finalist for this prize.’ I didn’t end up winning, but it was an honor to get that far. And because of the good reception and sales, Tim and Pantheon gave me a contract to write two more books, which was incredibly exciting.”

Interview design by Stephen H. Segal. Photo by Tina Chiou.

Read the full interview in the June 2021 issue of Locus.

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